Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

01.20.18Utopia and Other Aristocracies

Image result for aristocracy

One Benefit of an Ungraded Classroom


There’s a guy named Mark Barnes who’s got a column in Ed Week. It’s all about imagining a world in which we did not grade students at all.

Here’s the gist:

If you’re interested in disrupting education far more than the 3-D printer or smartphone ever could, consider schools and colleges where there are no grades. Imagine classrooms where teachers never place numbers, letters, percentages, or other labels on students’ work; where report cards don’t exist; and where the GPA has gone the way of the dinosaur,

Read quickly, friends- in just a moment he is going to ask us to close our eyes and imagine the more humane world this will bring about.  Practically a Utopia

The problem is that when I close my eyes and imagine a world without GPAs and report cards and tests (duh, obviously we’d get rid of the tests) I don’t see Utopia. I see aristocracy.

Then I open my eyes, because even with deep breathing ideas like this strike me as more harm than good. Far more.

Among other reasons there’s the fact that there will always be scarcity, and that means not everyone will get the best opportunities. (Everyone wants their kids to go to top universities, not everyone can. Sorry.) So you have to have some way to sort it all out. 

Meritocracy is the best way to do that, and meritocracy requires valuation.

When there is no grounds to judge, the elites will win all the perquisites. This is to say that when meritocracy disappears, aristocracy returns.

And aristocracy won’t be any better if it’s an aristocracy of elite progressives.

But that is partly what’s behind starry-eyed (and immensely popular) dreams like ‘let’s imagine a word with no grades.’  An argument like this is the luxury of caste- you only propose it if you are already in the elite.

When you eliminate evaluations you eliminate mobility. When you are already in the privileged class, this means cementing your place at the top whether or not you hide that fact behind egalitarian sounding aphorisms and ideology.

Anyway, please do not be fooled. Dreamy promises of ungraded Utopias are, in the end, dreamy promises of aristocracy.



, ,

25 Responses to “Utopia and Other Aristocracies”

  1. Tara Houle
    January 20, 2018 at 5:48 pm

    No grades? It’s already happened here where I live – British Columbia, Canada. The bigger lie, is that our education leaders who are responsible for creating this, are sending out false messages about how this will revolutionize our children for the future. And as for their lives beyond high school? That’s false too. Take a look at our latest brochure, meant to “inform” parents, and students about what to expect

    • Doug Lemov
      January 20, 2018 at 5:59 pm

      being able to rationalize why doing what is easy is morally superior to doing what is hard is a very dangerous thing.

  2. January 21, 2018 at 3:41 pm

    Thank you for this analysis Doug! I recently finished a great book on the history of educational policy entitled, ‘Tinkering Toward Utopia’, that you may enjoy. It is amazing how recycled many “innovative” reforms truly are.

    However, I do challenge you on [and I’ll sound like a utopian by doing so 🙂 ] your paradigm of scarcity of opportunity is less about ‘scarcity’ and should be labeled as inequality. Joseph Stiglitz is a thought leader about this concept from an economic standpoint and I’ll begin to wrap-up with a quote from him: “Inequality is a matter of choice. It’s the rules and the policies we put together.”

    I feel strongly that an ungraded system is not the answer to address the inequality of our opportunity scarcity, but we do need a significant paradigm shift within the current system. Thanks again Doug!

    • Doug Lemov
      January 21, 2018 at 11:07 pm

      Thanks for this. Been meaning to read some Stiglitz. If i read you correctly you’re saying it’s not scarcity because the deck is stacked against some participants. Inequality is fairer word. To that i agree. i just think measurement helps discipline us to see the ways the deck gets stacked (and how t fix it). we have a long way to go to get measurement right but i think it’s generally necessary to equality of opportunity. Thanks for commenting. -Doug

  3. Adam
    January 21, 2018 at 10:19 pm

    Doug—thanks for your contributions to the field and for your writing on this blog. I appreciate your dedication to reflective practice and pedagogy when it comes to the learning of students and adults alike.

    A few thoughts:

    Doesn’t school privilege certain kinds of learning and capital over others? Do all kids come in with the same capital? Isn’t it a kind of narrowly measured “meritocracy”? Do all kids have equal access to the content and the learning?

    With few exceptions, even if the instruction was phenomenal, the systems of grading I have observed in the 30 or so private, public charter, and public district schools in which I’ve consulted are not up to the standard that Dylan Williams, Grant Wiggins, or you would approve.

    What about adult bias? What systems are in place to control for that?

    What about assessment illiteracy—creating assessment that are not actually psychometrically valid?

    These (mostly rhetorical) questions are mostly pointing at the difficulty and non-reality of true meritocratic systems operating in schools. The infrastructure is just not really there.

    I know your network and ones of the ilk are in the process of changing that narrative. But we’re not there yet.

    Getting rid of grades is idealistic. Thinking most schools are meritocracies—grades or not—is equally if not more so.

    I would argue (as Mark does in the book treatment of this blog post) that engaging in an authentic dialogue with a learner around hitting a certain criterion of quality requires a great deal more insight, thought, and care than does scoring assessments to a rubric. I’ve been pulled from the classroom and made to score New York State assessments on a 0-2 and 0-4 point scale. Those were some of the most soul-deadening days of my career. Not to mention boring.

    The hard part is the ASSESSING, not the EVALUATION/GRADING.

    Don’t confuse no grades with no feedback. Or no grades with no expectation of continuous improvement/ethic of excellence.

    In fact, unhinged from a meaningless number (87% on a test, B+ on a paper, etc.), kids can actually focus on what matters: the learning.

    This is a nuanced claim. It’s why I think you’re more aligned with Mark than you let on here. I’ll bet you two would have a good dialogue around standards-based “grading”/assessment, for example. You’re both in favor of students developing ethics of excellence.

    I hear what you’re saying about opportunity being scarce. There are a limited number of seats in college, absolutely. It is a privileged perspective to not have to worry about issues of access.

    I wonder if the best way to “sort it all out” is to find ways to democratize access rather than conceding that there aren’t enough seats in the top colleges/top professions/etc. Is it what’s best for kids to sort them by their grades?

    Is there research backing up evaluation as leading to learning? Daniel Pink in DRIVE (and most motivation theorists) seems to think that evaluation has very little to do with learning or progress. So, does it have a place in schools? Can we find a better “sorting” mechanism?

    (FYI: His name is MARK Barnes (not Mike). In addition to being “a guy who’s got a column on EdWeek”, he’s a 20-year educator, author of a few books and online courses, and publisher of the “Hack Learning” series of ed content.)

    I’ll see if I can get Mark to weigh in. Maybe he can clarify better than I have. Thanks again for your work.


    • Doug Lemov
      January 21, 2018 at 11:14 pm

      thanks. I appreciate all your points. Don’t necessarily agree with alll of them but think they are well argued. and i’ll be sure to fix Mark’s name. 🙂

  4. January 22, 2018 at 1:09 am

    Thanks for reading my article in EdWeek’s 10 Big Ideas special report, Doug. I’m happy that it inspired you to blog about the no-grades classroom.

    I’m not sure I can clarify my stance much better than Adam already has, but I’ll try.

    Is the no-grades classroom idealistic? Perhaps, but impactful change usually begins with a few idealists.

    What troubles me most about your post isn’t that you don’t understand how no-grades assessment works (anyone who thinks it’s easy certainly doesn’t get it), it’s that you favor judgement over assessment. You suggest that if teachers don’t judge students, colleges won’t be able to figure out who should get in. If a college can’t figure out how to assess candidates, based on more than a test score or a GPA, it should close its doors.

    The idea behind no-grades assessment is to eliminate the type of judgement and valuation you suggest we can’t live without. I may have a utopian vision for education; some of my ideas may even seem illogical to casual onlookers or inexperienced educators. But I want every teacher, school leader, parent, and child who knows anything about me to understand that I believe that attempting to measure learning is not only impossible, it’s dangerous. And placing labels on kids, based on how the points add up, is not a system we should tolerate–no matter what colleges say or how long we’ve done it.

    I don’t want meritocracy or aristocracy. I want democracy.

    Give kids choice. Give kids a voice. Teach them how to think and how to assess their own progress. Observe learning and discuss it objectively; then move forward, based on a conversation. If this sounds like a utopia, shouldn’t all educators want one?

    • Doug Lemov
      January 22, 2018 at 3:03 am

      Thanks for your note, Mark.

      1) There are a lot more forms of scarcity in education than college.
      2) But even with college, no- it is not feasible ot evaluate everyone subjectively
      3) If you did you would have cronyism and elitism. As Dylan Wiliam pointed out the reason the SAT was invented was to keep the Ivy Leagues from being the sole bastion of the wealthy elite. The civil service exams did the same thing for gov’t service. Objective measurement is the best guard against cronyism and the old boy network that favors the privileged.
      4) In other words it is the ultimate form of regressive social policy. to say “why do we need to evaluate people” is to say “why do we need to compete” is to say “why can’t we just keep things as they are” and the reason you think that is because you’re on top. so of course you don’t want things shuffled.

      So… thanks for your reply but i strongly disagree. it’s an effort to dress anti-social mobility policies in sanitized clothing.



      • Heidi Long
        January 22, 2018 at 3:26 pm

        In response to this point, made by Mr. Lemov: “it is not feasible ot evaluate everyone subjectively”:

        That is precisely what we are doing with traditional grades. They are completely subjective. Do this experiment yourself: Give a roomful of educators the same student work and ask them to grade it. You’ll get a shocking level of variation. Even if you give them a scoring guide, teachers will disagree on what meets the criteria. Even in math, a subject where the answer is supposedly objective, teachers will debate about awarding and removing points for students showing their thinking clearly, making careless errors even when they follow the correct procedures, not following directions, the list goes on and on.

        If you don’t have the time or inclination to do this experiment yourself, I encourage you too seek out Mark’s book, Assessment 3.0, in which he makes the case for the subjectivity of our current system of grades far more persuasively and thoroughly than I have here.

        It also seems that you, Mr. Lemov, are arguing against a reform you don’t yet understand. A “no grades” approach is not free from standards, evaluation, and expectations of high achievement… quite the opposite. The goal is to get kids to do more, not just the bare minimum required to get the desired grade. The goal is to get kids to grapple with learning, not just memorize information for tests. The goal is to get kids to take their learning into their own hands, rather than just do what a teacher tells them to do. As Mark said, the goal is democracy.

        Again, I encourage you to deepen your understanding of this idea before you write or argue against it further. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and thanks for giving me and others the opportunity to respond.

      • Charlotte White
        January 22, 2018 at 5:31 pm

        Your comment about the SAT is troubling to me. It is not an objective assessment. It has been found time and again that the SAT is a biased toward white, middle and upper class kids. Never mind the fact that many brilliant students simply don’t test well. Many schools have foregone the use of the SAT in their admissions processes in answer to both of these problems.

        I have a grade-less classroom (there is still a grade at the end) and it simply means that I give feedback rather than numerical scores throughout the semester. It has eliminated my students’ focus on their grades and placed it firmly on their learning, which quite frankly means more in the long run. They are learning how they learn. What I like about my system is that it is equitable to students from underprivileged backgrounds and those with weaker skills. They can progress toward proficiency at their pace without being penalized for still learning with poor grades.

        Further, I have been a student at institutions with narrative feedback instead of grades. For college admissions officers, these transcripts provide an explanation of what knowledge and skills I’ve acquired throughout the year, rather than have to guess that I did well if I got an A. An “A” by the way, does not mean the student actually learned anything. It just means that they know how to game the system in their favor.

        • Matt
          January 25, 2018 at 12:08 am

          You know whats more biased than the SAT: individual subjective judgement! If you don’t want an exam, than you believe a panel of people can make just decisions. But we have hundreds of years of history showing panels like this will reward rich, white, connected men over any other group. I’d take a 100% blind placement system based on a single exam score over our current system that rewards status, political connections and money. Exams are more socially just than the alternative.

        • Dylan Wiliam
          April 16, 2018 at 10:13 pm

          Charlotte: I agree with most of what you posted, but I did want to respond to your point about whether the SAT is biased.

          You are right that the SAT is not an objective assessment—but then what is?—and you are right that many higher education institutions do not use it, since high school GPA (yes grades!) is a better indication of college freshman performance than the SAT. But, at least in the way that most assessment experts use the term “bias,” the SAT is not biased towards white, middle and upper class students. African-American students do score lower than white students on the SAT, but this is evidence of differential achievement, not bias. To show bias against African-American students, at least in a college selection test, you would have to show that African American students with a given SAT score would do better at college than white students with the same SAT score. This is not what we find. In fact, most analyses find the opposite.

      • January 23, 2018 at 4:12 pm

        Hi Doug,

        I really like your books and your blog but your responses to Mark Barnes feel very resistant, which feels strange to me.

        • January 23, 2018 at 4:22 pm

          Sorry, misposted that last comment early. What I am seeing proposed by Mark Barnes is a school system without grades. Doug, what I see you arguing against is a society with makes no evaluation of merit. These seem to be VERY different things to me. While the school system is kind of a microcosm of society, it is far from being the whole of society.

          You also talk about objective assessment and seem to have ignored the point that others have made that it is very hard (maybe impossible) to design and create truly objective assessment.

          A very recent post of yours talks about giving ideas a fair try before you reject them, but you seem to me to be making that same mistake around the idea of schooling without grades.

      • December 21, 2018 at 2:21 pm

        I’m not sure where you got the idea that the SAT was designed to disrupt elitism at Ivy League Schools. Source on that? Here’s what I’ve seen:

        • Doug Lemov
          December 21, 2018 at 2:26 pm

          you could start by reading lemann’s the big test.

  5. January 22, 2018 at 1:22 pm

    Doug, I’m astonished that a popular educator has such a rudimentary understanding of assessment and feedback.

    While “regressive social policy” may look good, along with your bizarre “meritocracy, aristocracy” position, your use of the phrase here is as far off as your idea that a going gradeless is easier than labeling kids with numbers and letters. A no-grades classroom is as far from “regressive” as anything can be. In fact, eliminating traditional grades is arguably the most progressive movement we’ve seen in centuries.

    Another phrase you use is “objective measurement.” There is absolutely no such thing in assessment. If you can explain with any logic how an educator can create an activity and objectively measure learning with it, I’ll concede your brilliance. The notion of measuring learning, though, is as absurd as the idea that controlling kids with glares and finger pointing is effective classroom management.

    You’re welcome to disagree with anything I say; this is the foundation of good debate. But if you want to argue assessment, you’ve got to bring more than “objective measurement” and inaccurately used phrases like “regressive social policy.”

    I certainly hope that your readers are smart enough to explore books on this topic like Hacking Assessment by Starr Sackstein and Daniel Pink’s Drive, and most books by Grant Wiggins, so they can witness exactly how legitimate assessment works, before they make final judgement.

    At the very least, I hope they attempt to de-emphasize traditional grades and engage students in a rich conversation about learning. They can always learn more and discuss this further on the Teachers Throwing Out Grades Facebook group.

    • Ben
      February 2, 2018 at 8:44 am

      Wow, fantastic arguments.

      I have ADHD and can barely read a sentence let alone a paragraph without my mind wondering all over. So I probably missed out important points that everyone made.

      I grew up in England and multiple choice was non existent. In high school you had to know what you were talking about and articulate your answer in written form to a standard acceptable to whoever is grading it somewhere else in the country that you have never met. Course work was also part of your grade in many subjects. My books usually had red pen in them with the teachers writing that said “see me.” Or a report card didn’t have grades but comments like, “has potential, could do more..” (am I being personally graded, or my work) (saying that wasn’t diagnosed with adhd until 34) Went to College here in the states in my mid 20s and it was all about multiple choice. Either way I was still graded.

      Even after reading all the these great arguments. Far beyond my intellect, big words and well constructed sentences that make me want to read again in the hope I can learn something and see if my adhd brain missed something.

      But i’m still not quite understanding the need to do away with grades. Disclaimer, I never got round to reading Marks post before writing this (I will read).

      How do you pass a course, exam or evaluation without someone’s judgment? Grading you against their knowledge or understanding of the subject matter. Grading you against previous papers or tests they have just read.

      People are smarter than others and show a better level of understanding than and that should be recognized.

      From personal experience in the Scantron grading system, when I look hard into the mirror, my grades never lied to me. This is what they told me:

      1. If I got an A, it was usually because I loved the subject, spent more time studying it, the teacher was engaging and guided me towards the right answers. If put 100% into my work and studying I had a good chance of getting an A.

      2. If I got a B or C or dropped the class before I was to get a grade, it was generally because I didn’t put the work in. Didn’t study long and hard enough. Didn’t check for understanding. Or as I understand now, I was completely distracted. Or wait, maybe I didn’t open my text book, or I couldn’t find Pearson test exams online.

      It didn’t favour my skin color, age or accent.

      My grades essentially told me every 2-3 whether I was studying hard enough to understand the material/subject. My B grade would tell me that I need to study more. If I did study harder next time and my grade didn’t improve, maybe I need to think about how and when I’m studying?

      It’s not a coincidence that my grades went from 4.0 honor roll in the first year to a 2.8 by year 3. I had a child and took on a more important job, working and driving more hours. My grades reflected my attention.

      I don’t know how you dress it up, and it might make people feel a bit safer not to be graded, where as others just need your brutal honesty, we are being judged, graded, evaluated in everyone we do.

      sometimes you just need a metric to know where your at.

      Merit based immigration is gonna suck 🙂

  6. Martin Geoghegan
    January 22, 2018 at 9:55 pm

    This is excellent.

    I’m glad, Doug, that you wrote this. I, too, don’t fully agree with you, but the discussion from Adam and Mark Barnes with you is tremendous.

    As a middle school principal, who tried to have our school move away from traditional grading, I am always looking for articles, posts, and books written on the subject.

    I believe we need to stop the practice of traditional grading, but I also know how difficult it is to help parents and the general school community understand that when we are making this change, we are trying to make the focus more on learning than points/scores/grades.

    It is very difficult.

    But thank you for discussing it.

    Much appreciated,

  7. Randall Porch
    January 22, 2018 at 10:03 pm

    Consider my curiosity piqued. I teach high school science and, frustrated with a grading system that so often doesn’t feel representative of the learning I witness, am always interested in alternative assessment. I took a whole course on grading and assessment that barely mentioned most of the ideas you bring up. You mentioned a few books, anything you would point someone to as an introduction? I am largely a prisoner of my school and district’s policies, but I find anything that expands my thinking and flips my perspective worthwhile. You never know when you’ll be put in a position to make a difference and I prefer to be as informed as possible.

  8. Roger Curtis
    January 23, 2018 at 12:19 am

    I’m disappointed that Mark delays on rhetoric and what amounts to an ad hominem response. Imagine if colleges asked him what the alternative to grades should be and I’m not confident he will have an answer. As for his surprise that a popular educator might not see the value in another’s point of view is not worthy of consideration. Especially when they resort to sarcasm (can’t grasp the obvious–rudimentady), to suggest that if you can translate a grade to a form of numerical analogy you must be unlike others–brilliant–is pure and simply immaturity at its finest and hardly the basis of good debate. Finally, tossing out authors’ names does not constitute a literature review or thesis. In fact, it’s the antithesis.

  9. Dylan Boyd
    January 23, 2018 at 3:18 pm

    This seems to be a discussion/debate between two view points that are *very* concerned about a particular social danger, but the specific concerns are not actually poles of the same spectrum.

    Doug, you seem to warn of a return to aristocratic values.

    Mark, you seem to warn of the negative impacts of judgement masquerading as objectivity.

    Of course both positions are more nuanced than these reductionist summary statements. I summarize to illustrated that they are not really talking about the same thing, precisely, which might explain why the arguments are going right past both of you.

    Now, I don’t have any more wisdom than anyone else, and I don’t see this debate any clearer than you do, but while the comments here are extremely polite and respectful, I don’t see a lot of listening going on.

    In my opinion – to weight in myself – Doug’s point that a society completely devoid of evaluation doesn’t make sense, would likely result in all kinds of inequity, and is hardly a utopia. Mark’s suggestion that we stop putting so much stock in grades (numbers assigned to performance or learning) and start having meaningful interaction around actual learning – what has been learned, what is there left to learn – would be an improvement, in terms of feedback for the learner and therefore further improvement, over the traditional system of letter grades and test scores.

    It also seems that Mark and Doug, you are both talking about two different things entirely when you use the word “grades.” Mark, your focus seems to be on feedback to the learner. Grades in the traditional sense, aren’t effective in this purpose – the learner needs specific feedback on what they have learned, how completely they understand, and what they might want to learn next. Doug, your focus seems to be on grades as information for others – evaluators of the learners, like colleges and employers, who need to select candidates based in part on what they have learned and how well they have learned it. This is feedback in two completely different contexts, with completely different purposes, and the feedback, therefore, should look very different.

    I am with Mark in the sense that feedback for the learner is best done with more specificity than summary grades have – that is, traditional grading is garbage for this purpose, and I believe it corrupts the learning process, turning it into a game where the objective becomes accumulating points or scores rather than developing knowledge and understanding.

    I am also with Doug in the sense that there is a place for codifying performance for the purposes of external evaluation. It isn’t feasible to conduct holistic selection of candidates to positions with limited availability. A systematic measure is valuable here.

    It’s just that the tool for that systematic measure is also being used as feedback for the learner and this is counterproductive *from the learner’s perspective.* We have been using a grading (and school) system that serves the “others,” not the learners. This is the shift in perspective that I think Mark (and others) are calling for, and it doesn’t have to come at the expense of an external evaluation system, and therefore suggestions for schools to provide feedback to learners without “grades” is not a threat to a meritocratic society.

  10. John
    January 24, 2018 at 9:50 pm

    Let’s talk about sports,

    Football players generally are “strong” and/or “fast” and/or “coordinated”

    Qualities such as these are usually “graded” using “assessments” like bench press, squat, chinups, 40 yard dash, etc.

    Let’s imagine a beautiful world where such physical ablities are not “graded” There are no numbers on barbells, no stopwatches, and everyone turns away when you do pushups so as avoid counting them.

    If you can move you’re “fast” and if you can open a jar of baby food you’re “strong” and if you can do either without falling down you’re “coordinated.” Your mother is the final arbiter of you abilities because she knows you best.

    Imagine a kid who’s far below average in athletic ability but dreams of gridiron glory in the superbowl. He’s been deemed “strong”, “fast”, and “coordinated”, and his mom agrees. He’s never managed more than one pushup, but no one’s counting.

    He approaches the football coach for a slot on the team thinking it’s a no-brainer because he’s “strong”, “fast”, and “coordinated”.

    The coach say, that’s nice, but so is everyone else in the school, all 2,000 of them, and 90% are stronger, faster, and more coordinated than you. I have only 20 or so slots on the roster, and you’re asking my to reject 1,800 people who are more eligible than you. Sorry.

    This scenario is unlikely to happen because nearly everyone learns at an early age where they stand in the athletic pecking order. As painful as such a realization may be, it’s far less destructive if it comes early and not after someone has devoted years to a dream that can never be.

    Now imagine a kid who’s well below average in terms of math ability and who dreams of going to MIT and being a rocket scientist.

  11. Matt
    January 25, 2018 at 12:02 am

    Here is a math teacher reflecting on math being the gatekeeping class (which it often is):

    To those that are opposed to grades and exams at all, should everyone be a doctor or should there be a minimal competency? If there should be a minimal competency, how should it be judged? If you say performance task, how do you deal with bias that historically has discriminated against women or people of color or other underrepresented groups? All the evidence shows that when people have to judge on a performance task that class, race, social status and political connections will matter way more than competency. So why not a test?

  12. Derek Hopper
    January 28, 2018 at 7:42 pm

    There needs to be summative evaluation at the end of schooling for qualification purposes. No way to get around that. Before that, teachers may need to collect objective data on student progress to measure their impact and plan next steps. In many situations, this objective data may not need to be shared with students, instead qualitative feedback on learning can be given. Reducing grading may reduce teacher workload, for example instead of grading a set of papers, a teacher can read them quickly and make a note of common mistakes and then feedback to the whole class, thence moving the learning forward. As a music teacher I would rather not give arbitrary grades on student performance, instead I would discuss how the performance went etc. Having said all that, some students are extremely motivated by their scores on tests, so may it is not a cut and dried situation.

Leave a Reply